What would happen to the Iron Man franchise if you took out all the "iron"—the slit-eyed helmet and headlamp breastplate, ruby-red gauntlets and metal mukluks, repulsor rays and boot-jets--and left just the man, billionaire daredevil Tony Stark, armed with nothing more than his wicked goatee, dagger-sharp irony, and impenetrable aura of self-love? (Many superheroes have made do with less.)
The question may seem perverse, but surely I'm not the only person to have asked it. Even the director of the franchise's two installments to date, Jon Favreau, seems to view the heavy clanking of mechanized men as a bit of a chore: the kind of well-prepared yet unremarkable meat course that must inevitably follow the delightful amuse bouche of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Stark. The first Iron Man was at its very best in the early going, when pre-heroic arms-dealer/impresario Stark was putting on a show for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. ("Is it better to be feared or respected?" he asked rhetorically. "Is it too much to hope for both?") The unforeseen denouement of his presentation, however, found Stark captured by militants and stashed away in a mountain cave, where he learned the somewhat equivocal lesson that it's only okay to create unfathomably destructive weapons if you don't allow anyone to use them but yourself. Stark doesn't merely sing of arms and the man: Suited up, he is arms and the man. His campaign to remain unique in this respect (generous interpretation: counter-proliferator; less generous: monopolist) played a subsidiary role in the first film, in which he ultimately pummeled competing cyber-capitalist Jeff Bridges so badly that he turned him into a drunken, down-and-out country singer.
By Iron Man 2, however, the race to build a rival suit of armor is in full swing--like current corporate efforts to manufacture a viable fuel-cell car or another Megan Fox. Sam Rockwell shows up as sleazy Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, out to increase his share of the military cyborg market; Gary Shandling, his head as puffy as a microwaved tater tot, appears as a U.S. Senator eager to subject Iron Man to eminent domain; and Mickey Rourke arrives, fresh from the same tattoo-parlor-cum-Russian-accent-school recently popularized by Viggo Mortensen, with an Eastern promise of his own.
Even as the opening of Iron Man 2 segues directly from the conclusion of its predecessor, it inverts the story gently: another physicist-son watches Stark's triumphal press conference announcing "I am Iron Man," and sets out to validate the memory of his physicist-father by building his own suit of badass body armor. In this case, the manufacture takes places in a dingy Russian apartment rather than a Central Asian cave and the inventor in question, Ivan Vanko (Rourke), soon to be known as Whiplash, is about as far from an international playboy as one can be while still belonging to the same biological genus. Yet, as is so often the case in such tales, the connection is nonetheless intimate: Vanko's physicist-dad worked with, and was eventually deported by, Stark's physicist-dad. So when the Sins of the Fathers later show up for a visit, we all know whose doorbell they'll be ringing.
In the meantime, though, Iron Man is the toast of pretty much every town he sets boot in, from Malibu to Washington. He's even scored himself a "Person of the Year" cover from Time magazine which, whatever you think of it on the merits, is surely an upgrade from "You." In the interest of science and world peace, he also sponsors a belated sequel to the "Stark Expo" of 1974 (a light gloss on the 1964 World's Fair), jumping out of a cargo plane to land onstage in Flushing, NY, in front of a shimmying chorus of girls whose halter tops and short-shorts are in Iron Man's trademark crimson and gold. (I consider myself above commenting on their, ahem, headlights.)
Then it's off to Washington to fend off voracious bureaucrats—"I will serve this great nation at my own pleasure," Stark explains to a congressional committee, "and one thing I have proven is that you can count on me to pleasure myself"—and to Monte Carlo to participate in the Formula One Grand Prix. At least, that is, until Whiplash shows up to offer his peculiar brand of auto detailing services. The resulting action sequence is among the smallest of the film and, no coincidence, the best, with an emotional crackle that goes beyond mere F/X.
From there, though, the movie gradually succumbs to the excesses that typically adhere to the genre: too many characters, too many storylines, too much CGI. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Stark's Girl Friday, Pepper Potts, and receives a substantial promotion. Don Cheadle inherits the role of Stark's military liaison and sometimes-best-buddy James "Rhodey" Rhodes, though the filmmakers can't think up much more for him to do than his predecessor in the role, Terrence Howard. And there is a decidedly—though I might say characteristically—unnecessary part thrown in for Scarlett Johansson, as a new Stark Industries employee who May Be More Than She Appears. The best bit of stunt-casting (apart from Rourke and Rockwell, who bring their customary attractions) is Mad Men's John Slattery as Stark's deceased, industro-utopian dad Howard.
For the most part, director Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux keep the story moving forward, and they have the common decency (far too uncommon these days) to have the credits rolling by the two-hour mark. (This is not, praise God, another Transformers.) There are clear moments of slack, though, as when Stark has to build a cyclotron—sorry, "prismatic accelerator"—in order to synthesize a new element, whose properties were hidden by his father in a model of the 1974 Expo, so that he can replace the palladium battery in his chest that is slowly killing him, and—oh, never mind. At least there's a cute joke about Captain America's shield stuck in there somewhere.
The film ends, as it must, with a confrontation among roboticized men (Stark, Vanko, Rhodey) and Hammer's cybernetic drones (which Stark coyly dubs "Hammeroids"). On the way to a surprisingly limp conclusion, there is much flying and shooting and exploding, and more metal on metal than you're likely ever to find outside an Anvil concert. And then, of course, there is the de rigeur coda-promo for the planned 2012 Avengers movie, of which we are all likely to have grown tired long before principal photography begins, Joss Whedon or no Joss Whedon. There is a touch of uncertainty injected, however, regarding the extent of Downey's participation in the super-group mega-movie. When, in a closing scene, Samuel L. Jackson's Sgt. Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.—did I fail to mention he shows up, too?—tells Stark that he might not be Avengers material after all, and might instead be retained as a "consultant," Stark (or is it Downey?) laughs: "You can't afford me."
Which, if true, might be just as well. Iron Man 2 is a perfectly diverting action film—particularly following the extreme clunkers of last season—but it's a reminder that Downey is at his best when given, as he was to a substantial degree last time out, a one-man show. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed for ... Man 3: Tony Stark Unplugged.